The number of books I’ve gobbled up and excreted without retaining more than a tiny portion of their nutrients is pretty demoralizing.
Sure, I’ve changed through my reading of classics like The Republic. My intellect has sharpened. My beliefs have altered for the better.
But how many anecdotes from the text can I actually retrieve and bring up in mid conversation? And if put on the spot would I be able to summarize his argument about justice, his ideal state?
About a year ago, I was feeling pretty unmotivated to do my history readings because I had recently picked up the notion that whatever I read I was just going to forget.
That belief wasn’t completely true, of course, but even the smallest bits of doubt are enough to send the self-directed learner into a state of paralysis, especially if you’re prone to the feeling like I am.
So I decided to try a new study tactic where I write down questions about the text that I then answer at a later date.
It’s worked wonders for me so far. The facts, stories, and theories are actually sticking. I’ll give you the jist of the method in this article.
How to Use the Question-Creation NoteTaking Method
In my commonplace book (just a spiral college notebook) whenever I read something I want to remember, I don’t take note of it. Instead, I create a question about it and write that down with page numbers telling me where to find the answer.
The questions look like discussion or short answer questions in the textbooks or handouts you might’ve seen during your school days.
They serve as prompts for me to do retrieval practice, an effective studying practice where you force your mind to try to remember what you’ve read. By forcing your mind to remember something, you signal to it that the information is important to keep.
Here’s an illustration of how it works in practice. I read a few pages in Battle Cry of Freedom about industrialization failing in the South, and wanted to remember the three main explanations for this.
So I created a question, which I mark by using black pen ( please excuse my hieroglyphic handwriting):
Side Note: I use green pen for quotes, red for 10-page summaries, and blue for reflections, but that’s a method for another article.
The question above is “Describe the 3 prevailing economic theories for the cause of failed industrialization in the South: slave efficiency, capital, culture.”
It seems I was nice to my future self here and actually gave him the three theories as a starting point. Sometimes I’m meaner.
In a reading session of about 20 pages I’ll usually write at least two questions, but it varies depending on how much I want to remember.
I’ve found that actually writing the questions out actually helps me remember better as well, and I think it’s because it’s forcing me to turn something abstract and vague into something concrete and specific by analyzing what I have just read and boiling it down into its fundamental components.
Plus, as I’m forming the question I’m forcing myself to do retrieval practice since I’m thinking over what I have just read.
When & How Do You Answer the Questions?
Before every study session, I try to answer one or two questions. And after finishing an entire book, I’ll try to answer every single one over the course of a few weeks.
Before I started this practice, I was aware of the importance of practicing information retrieval, but I was going about it haphazardly and unsystematically, which made the experience frustrating and often useless.
I was just sitting down at my desk before a study session and trying to remember what I read the last time. Without a prompt, it was painful. I often skipped it entirely and just started reading.
It’s much easier to practice retrieval when I have a question like “In what three ways did America grow in the period of 1800 – 1840, and what were some negative consequences of this rapid growth?”
Although I write the questions in my commonplace book, I answer them in a Google Doc:
Sometimes I don’t know the answer or need to fill some gaps so I have to return to the right pages to review the material. Perhaps I’ll update this system and start marking those questions for review, but for now I’m just keeping the system rudimentary so that I actually stick to it.
Remembering What You Read as a Self-Learner
For better or worse, self-learners don’t have teachers forcing them to do homework or take tests and do retrieval practice.
So as an autodidact you have to be both the student and the teacher. Writing down questions that you’ll have to answer later is an excellent way to play the teacher role.
Next time you read, consider writing down just one question that will help you remember one concept, idea, argument, story or theory that you really want to stick in your mind and be able to articulate. Then, before you start your next reading session, try to answer it. You’ll probably be surprised at how much you know.